Friday, 22 May 2015

At the Cost of Biodiversity, Development isn’t prerogative!

Deepika Sharma
BSc (H) 2nd year
Gargi College, University of Delhi
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It is a rat race to get this label in the renowned surveys of the world. It is a race to be on the top of the corporate ladder. It is a quest to be called best economy and most developed. India is no far in this competition among other nations. We want to rise above from being called developing to the developed. But what is development in the true sense. Is it only about getting better points in sensex market, gross domestic product (GDP) or building so called world class infrastructure or empowering social structure of the society? Albeit these are important issues to be worked upon, yet we have sidelined one of the core responsibilities towards environment and ecosystem.

In this century, development alone is hollow and meaningless. Sustainable development is what we should work and plan for.

Development is something which is and should be inclusive of environment , it isn’t prerogative to Homo sapiens. We share our planet with 1,589,361 varied forms of flora and 1,203,375 of animals; all of them, equally significant.

This decade has seen numerous campaigns about save tiger, save trees or planting more trees but I can’t recall any strong and influential campaign dedicated to endangered plant species? One would say that staple plants like wheat, maize, rice, cotton, etc are doing well. They are producing enough basics for us. So do we really need to care about bryophytes or endangered species of algae or something as cycads the living fossil? It is a mere ornament festooned in some of the lawns and algae is sometime not even big enough to get noticed. Bryophyte is out of question. So what if they are lost; are they really important? The answer is a big YES! All these plants, no matter, wheat, maize, algae, bryophyte or one in your lawn is doing something very fundamental to support our lives. They are releasing oxygen which is making our survival possible on earth. Diatoms, single-celled algae can absorb 23.275 pentagram of carbon per year; whereas, a tropical rainforest absorb 17.8Pg of carbon per year. But the economic growth and development we are seeking is not directly proportional to the oxygen produced or carbon absorbed.

Our generation is strangled by inflation, food insecurity, deadly health hazards and ever increasing fuel prices.

After almost every few weeks the rising prices of petrol, diesel, cylinder gas fuels up the headlines. The stress is building on minimal non renewable limited fossil fuels we have. Biofuel from plants can offer the possible alternative to this. Our crops such as wheat, corn, potato, sugarbeet have sugar content in them which can be fermented, distilled and dried to make bioethanol. Furthermore, the heat for the distillation can be derived from cellulosic biomass such as baggase, from sugarcane industry or from pellets of wood. Ethanol can be used in petrol engines as a replacement for gasoline; it can be mixed with gasoline to any percentage. Most existing car petrol engines can run on blends of up to 15% bioethanol with petroleum/gasoline. Ethanol has a smaller energy density this means it takes more fuel (volume and mass) to produce the same amount of work. The demand of heavy fuel needs of aviation industry, railways can also be met with biofuel. Algae have oil producing capability producing 1,000 to 5,000 gallons of oil per acre which can be converted to renewable fuel using existing technology. Algae can grow easily which adds to its advantage. Off all the major of biofuel has a high buoyancy than crude oil, which later aids in its removal. Hence the cost of cleaning oil spills can be reduced considerably.

What more which amazed me was Jatropha. This is a modest shrub with scarlet flowers which I come across at my college, festooned at lawns of my neighbours houses. I thought it is mere an ornamental but it can do something out of ordinary. It can produce vegetable oil which can be used as an alternative to the diesel oil. The Jatropha oil has advantageous physicochemical and the characteristic that is equal to diesel. The Jatropha oil burns with clear free smoke and flame. These biofuels can potential alternative to petrol and in coming years it can and will be used commercial purposes.

Now we can not only survive on the fuel or diesel. We need to beat our appetite as well. Growing population means growing requirement of food needs. It is believed that food production must rise by 70% to feed the soaring and starving global population. We need food for our growing population at the same time we need land as well. Land again becomes a limiting factor since good agriculture productivity need appreciable land size. We need land for industries, housing, schools, colleges, etc. Solution again lays in the plant biodiversity. We need to increase the productivity of our commercial crops. This can be done by genetic engineering which can do wonders. The manipulation in the genes of crops can increase their productivity with minimal use of resources which can be a good deal. New commercially important hybrids and improved varieties can be made by the use of genetic tools. This can give a big boost to our farmers and our markets.

Also plants have given has added some unconventional dishes to our menus. Nostoc for example is eaten in many parts of world. Hemp nut milks are a vegan’s best friend for absorbing calcium and vitamin D. Shepherd’s purse, a common weed, is a nutritional powerhouse. Not only this, plants can provide food for the livestock as well. Barbella pendula has a high content of vitamin B12 and causes no noticeable side effects when fed to puppies and chickens. Sphagnum as milled peat, provides a binder for iron and vitamins used to supplement the diet of anaemic piglets. Thus these plants should be promoted which can be helpful to ensure food security for all in times to come.

In addition to this, our agricultural practices have immensely depended on insecticides and pesticides. But over the recent years it has proved by studies that these can be harmful for our health. Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) for that matter is used extensively as insect killer but it is a potent mutagen and carcinogen. Rotenone from Derris, Lonchocarpus, etc has successful insecticide. Pyrethrum has been used as mosquito repllent and also to protect stored grains in commercial elevators.

Not only this, plants can produce life saving drugs for deadly diseases as cancer. The well known Yew plant is used for treating cancer. The cancer treatment drug topotecan is a synthetic chemical compound similar in chemical structure to camptothecin which is found in extracts of Camptotheca.

Foxglove can be employed in the treatment of circulatory disorders. Morphine from Poppy plant can be used to treat cough, diarrhoea. Extracts from Rauwolfia leaves are used to cure opacity in cornea. Also antibiotics can be obtained from plants like Bishop’s weed, Senna, wormseed etc.

Besides this plant has enriched our fabric industry with different fabrics like cotton (Gossypium spp), jute (Crocus spp), Hemp (Cannabis sativa). Also plants like Indigofera spp, Isatis tinctoria, Bixa orellan have imparted spectacular hues to these fabrics in the form of dyes. Off, these dyes are eco friendly unlike those synthetic ones.

Varied Spectrum of plants is equal to varied spectrum of their usage is equal to more resolutions, more innovation which is proportional to more development and strengthened economy. Each of the plant species, subspecies, is significant in one way or the other. A plant might not be commercially important to us but its existence can’t be underestimated in the complex interknitted food web. Every plant is a resource in itself; we need to acknowledge their being. There is no development at the cost of  biodiversity. It is a trousseau we need to preserve with care and pass on to generations to come. Biodiversity once lost cannot be compensated.

13. SL Kochar 'Economic Botany in the Tropics', 4 Edition. (Printed), Fibres and fibre yielding plants (Pg 19-53), Vegetable tannins and dyestuffs (Pg 383-400), Insecticides and herbicides (Pg 430- 438), Plant diversity and its conservation (Pg 531- 536)

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